Of Oscars & weenies

Either we’re late with our top-10 lists, or else we’re jumping the gun with our Oscar Best Picture predictions. We prefer the latter.

Every year around this time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets around to nominating its candidates for another round of Oscars. This year’s crop will be announced early next week—on Tuesday, January 27, to be precise.

You know the drill. It usually comes down to a battle between one big-budget smash, with or without computer animation; a couple of semi-pretentious star vehicles designed to kick a celebrity actor upstairs into the lofty firmament inhabited by Laurence Olivier and Ingrid Bergman (y’know, that Gwyneth Paltrow truly is Sylvia Plath); and perhaps a surprise or two.

Mind you, this isn’t a list of predicted Best Picture Oscar nominees. Instead, these are our two resident film buffs’ picks for the 10 best films from last year, in alphabetical order, along with five nominees apiece for films least likely to be nominated. There are some overlaps, but not many, and although a few of the films were listed as 2002 releases, they didn’t appear in local theaters until 2003.

And if they aren’t out on DVD or video yet, they will be soon.

Anyway, the best pictures of last year are …

Bend It Like Beckham
Director Gurinder Chadha, a specialist in portraying the jostling of cultures in Britain’s East Indian community, enriched a borderline-predictable story with her excellent eye for detail, her sweet compassion and her knack for drawing sympathetic performances from an excellent cast.

Finding Nemo The gang at Pixar Animation did it again: It produced a film that was stunning to behold, with a story that had just about everything: humor, heart, excitement and a surprise around every corner—not to mention Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres, giving their best performances to date.

Ghosts of the Abyss Director James Cameron went back to the grave of RMS Titanic with IMAX 3-D cameras, sending digital drones deep into the ship to see things unseen in 90 years. In the process, he got closer to the terrible heart of the ship’s sinking in 59 minutes than his 1997 film did in three hours.

In America Director Jim Sheridan and his daughters Naomi and Kirsten wove the (autobiographical?) story of an Irish family in New York into a deeply moving tale of grief, healing and hope, with extraordinary performances by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King This was actually the last third, the climax and culmination, of director Peter Jackson’s magnum opus—one of the greatest (and longest) achievements in movie history. Jackson may never equal it—but then, he doesn’t have to.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Patrick O’Brian’s novels mix swashbuckling adventure and social satire; Peter Weir’s film eschewed the latter but nailed the former spot-on. Few seafaring films have so perfectly captured the danger, isolation and exhilaration of life at sea; Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany were ideal as O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A Mighty Wind Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary was his best yet, a reunion concert of 1960s folk groups that was hilarious and surprisingly poignant. The songs were rousing, and Guest’s stock company could play characters that go way back, because the actors do, as well. Eugene Levy (who co-wrote) deserves an Oscar nod for his role as a ’60s burnout.

Mystic River Director Clint Eastwood was at the top of his game in this story of three childhood buddies reunited when the daughter of one is murdered, another is a suspect, and the third is a cop investigating. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins had the showcase roles, but Kevin Bacon as the cop was even better.

Peter Pan Why do this old chestnut again? To make the definitive version for all time, of course! P.J. Hogan’s film was pure magic from the first frame to the last, the story fresh and new all over again. Jeremy Sumpter was Peter, Rachel Hurd-Wood was Wendy, and Jason Isaacs was Capt. Hook (J.M. Barrie’s “not wholly unheroic character”)—all to the absolute life.

Shattered Glass Director Billy Ray, adapting the article by Buzz Bissinger, recounted the downfall of disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen, redeeming himself after his dull work as Anakin Skywalker). Ray gave us the satisfaction of seeing a smarmy, brown-nosing little fake get what’s coming to him. All the Real Girls Young love in a North Carolina mill town leads to tests of honesty, decency and friendship for the local Lothario when he dates the virgin sister of his best buddy. This naturalistic, melancholy, often-comic hymn to dead-end America is pitch-perfect.

American Splendor Harvey Pekar turned his geeky personal life and career as a file clerk in a Cleveland hospital into the American Splendor comic-book series. Here that series and the graphic novel Our Cancer Year, by his wife, Joyce Brabner, audaciously are turned into a soulful balancing act of the real and the imagined.

City of God This dramatization of life from the late 1960s to 1980 in a lawless housing project outside Rio de Janeiro is both hard to watch and mesmerizing. Gangs, kids with guns, innocents and police collide in a rush of breathless camera movement and editing in a sort of shantytown version of Lord of the Flies.

In America Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical search for physical and spiritual sanctuary is the most vivid and resonant film of the year. An Irish family moves into a Manhattan slum with more emotional baggage in tow than material possessions. Djimon Hounsou gives a heart-throttling supporting performance as “the man who screams.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King I liked the first two installments better, but this conclusion to director Peter Jackson’s brilliantly conceived and executed adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel is nonetheless an amazing accomplishment.

The Man Without a Past A Finnish amnesia victim sets up house in a communal cluster of railroad-car-sized shipping containers in this deadpan valentine to human resiliency. The film has the simplicity of The Straight Story, the bittersweet-ness of Amarcord and the character parade of Dr. Akagi.

Mystic River One of three boyhood pals is abducted from a Boston street in the early 1970s. Twenty-five years later, the estranged friends are reunited by a murder. Clint Eastwood directs this tragedy of fractured relationships with powerful narrative muscle.

Nowhere in Africa An affluent Jewish couple and daughter flee to Kenya in 1938 to escape persecution in budding Nazi Germany in this smashing adult love story. The family members take turns falling in and out of favor with each other and in and out of love with a country that saves their lives.

Peter Pan J.M. Barrie’s classic story is—among many things—about a flying boy who refuses to grow up and a young girl whose elders insist she must. This live-action version enhances the whimsy, danger, adventure and literary nature of Barrie’s play and book with exhilarating characterizations and special effects.

Respiro The wife of a fisherman in an island village off the coast of Sicily struggles with manic depression as her rebellious attitude in a male-dominated society perplexes and shocks family and neighbors in a film bulging with both passion and compassion.

… and the worst

Basic John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in a plotless mess that sank them and several other fine actors.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd Two hapless unknowns spent 85 minutes proving they’re not Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. But we knew that already.

Gigli Oh yes—it really was that bad.

Love Don’t Cost a Thing This remake of Can’t Buy Me Love was maybe one cut above home video, with unlikable stars and an amateur supporting cast.

Masked and Anonymous Many stars were so eager to work with the legendary Bob Dylan that they apparently didn’t read the script. Bi-i-i-ig mistake.

Boat Trip Cuba Gooding Jr. follows his shameless mugging in Snow Dogs with another thick slice of thespian ham as a flaming heterosexual who finds himself booked on a gay Love Boat.

Cradle 2 the Grave Jet Li performs one brief, semi-classic action stunt in this numbing action-heist-kidnap debacle in which DMX leads a gang of thieves with a “no guns” rule (movie shorthand for “these are good bad guys”).

The Cat in the Hat The dear doctor’s magic is lost in this big-screen, live-action translation of his popular book. The whimsical sets look like gently pulled pastel taffy sculptures. The good news ends there.

House of the Dead Flesh eaters interrupt the “rave of the year” on an isle off the coast of Seattle to slaughter a dance floor of gyrating hipsters and some fashionably late party babes who are better at baring their breasts than at reading cue cards.

National Security Martin Lawrence is his usual smug, seething self in a reactionary, racist, anti-cop movie about racism that is dressed up as a buddy-security-cop action-comedy trumpeting the brain death of Hollywood.